Madness And Identity Crisis In Hamlet

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

The self is a very difficult subject to favourably describe. It is essentially understood through a collective experience rather than a concrete definition. Society references one’s “personal identity” as what makes one the person they are, what makes one an individual and different from others. Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s tragic play, introduces a variety of characters that struggle to define their inner selves. The protagonist of the play, Hamlet himself, is a character whose actions and inactions are driven by his struggle to define himself in the dichotomy between inward and outward identity. The question of “who’s there,” a question posed in the beginning externally from one character to another, is the question Hamlet asks himself throughout the play, and Hamlet’s thoughts and actions are windows into this mindset. Hamlet is a character threatened by this question, and the dichotomy of the definition of identity between the outer man, which is the man that is a cultural subject, and the inner man, which is the consciousness. Over the course of the play, Hamlet is at war with the finding of meaning in these dual concepts of identity, but Hamlet’s thoughts, speech, and actions, in opposition to himself and other characters convey that, for Hamlet, the reality of identity lies within the individual, and that at the end of the play, when he states, “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane!”, he ultimately reinforces the philosophical claim that states that identity exists in the consciousness and the self. Personal identity, specifically at Hamlet’s conversation with the ghost of his father, the implications of Hamlet’s insanity, and Hamlet’s final fights with Laertes beside Ophelia’s grave, show the progression of Hamlet’s mindset on personal identity.

The opening lines of Hamlet, “stand, and unfold yourself”, immediately opens the theme of identity in the text. The question of inward versus outward identity is made complex by the nature of the issue itself because in this context identity is not simple, but polarized. That is, it compromises a total concept whose two conflicting aspects are public and private, or what the character Claudius terms “the exterior” and “the inward man”. To address this issue in Hamlet, and answer the question of identity at the fundamental level, the connection and dichotomy of inward and outward dimensions of identity must first be determined. Seventeenth century philosopher John Locke, in his philosophical work “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” gives an argument for inner identity, stating, “Consciousness makes personal identity…For, since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes everyone to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then…” In this statement Locke is saying that identity not only exists in the consciousness, wherever that may exist, but consists entirely of the consciousness. Contemporary professor of Philosophy Elizabeth Wolgast, in her philosophical article “Personal Identity: Many Criteria,” provides explanation for many of the ways in which society defines the self, from practical toidealistic criteria, and states, “Each of us is a particular and enduring person. We change in many ways over time… but our identity remains the same… a centre which holds what is most intimately involved in someone’s conscious life.” In this statement Wolgast is making a point that is similar to Locke’s that states that though one changes in many ways over time, identity remains constant in the self.

Conversely to these points of view, English theorists Jeffrey T. Nealon and Susan Searls Giroux, in the chapter on “Subjectivity” in their analytical theory-based textbook The Theory Toolbox, discuss the dichotomy between the “self” and the “subject,” as factions of identity, stating, “We tend to think of the ‘self’ as that which is primary, untouched by cultural influences. We like to believe that our selfhood is the essence of our unique individuality: the intrinsic, singular qualities that define us as who we are… to understand the ‘self’ as an inwardly generated phenomenon, a notion of personhood based on the particular (yet strangely abstract) qualities that make us who we are. On the other hand, the subject is an outwardly generated concept, an effect, an understanding of personhood based on the social laws or codes to which we are made to answer…always understood in reference to preexisting social conditions and categories.” This statement gives an argument counter to Locke’s and Wolgast’s, that humans are cultural subjects, and the product is identity. Thus, through these three viewpoints, I have set up the conflicted issue of outer versus inner identity.

In Hamlet, the plot focuses around Prince Hamlet’s struggle to fulfill his promise to his dead father, to seek revenge on his uncle and thus to claim his destiny, or decide which destiny he will choose, or determine whether or not he even has a destiny at all. The first major indication of Hamlet’s identity crisis comes in the scene where Hamlet meets his father’s ghost, setting up the issue of identity for the rest of the play. In the darkness, the ghost speaks out to Hamlet, claiming to be the spirit of Hamlet’s father, calling Hamlet to revenge his death. The ghost’s story confirms Hamlet’s fears about his murderous uncle, and when the dawn breaks, the ghost disappears, and Hamlet, intensely moved by the bold reality of the situation, swears to remember and obey the ghost. As he leaves with Marcellus and Horatio, Hamlet bemoans the responsibility he now carries: “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!”. Hamlet’s identity is instantly affected by the newly enforced responsibility that he carries, and this is evident through the statement, “that ever I was born to set it right” which represents Hamlet’s claim to his identity as it has been presented to him outwardly. The ghost’s demand for Hamlet to seek revenge on Claudius, and Hamlet’s subsequent reaction, is the pivotal event of Act I and sets the main plot of the play into motion while defining the issue of Hamlet’s personal identity, because his mission to kill his uncle has made him a cultural subject, a product of outside forces, while he tries to reconcile this image of himself to his inner identity.

The relation between appearance and reality, or outward and inner identity, is crucially important when looking at one of the central tensions in Hamlet’s identity conflict: his madness. Hamlet’s inability to derive morality from the act of revenge he has been asked to perform leads him to the idea of feigning madness, which becomes his primary mode of interacting with other people for most of the following three acts, and is a principal tactic that Shakespeare uses to develop his character. Hamlet’s decision to feign madness, in order to keep the other characters from guessing his motives for his acts, is a prime example of the way in which Hamlet relies on outer identity, or the notion of himself as a cultural subject, categorized social conditions. At times, this leads him perilously close to the cliff’s edge of sanity, teetering into the abyss of actual madness, and in fact it is impossible to say for certain whether or not Hamlet is truly mad, and, if so, when his act becomes reality. Hamlet says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft.” Thus, Hamlet is acting like he is mad when he is not, in order to deceive the King and Queen. Hamlet’s action questions whether deception plays a role in developing an identity, as many believe that Hamlet is truly going mad and associate lunacy with his identity. Hamlet, aware of the fact that people base identities on how others act, acts differently to display and even give himself the identity of a lunatic, which displays his temporary surrender to subjectivity.

The fifth and final act of the play sees the culmination of violence from the buildup of tensions in all the relationships of the play, and also the resolution of Hamlet’s conflict of identity. For many, the resolution could be argued either way, but I argue that Hamlet emerges to dominate the fifth act as a new man, claiming identity within the self. In Act V scene i, in the churchyard, two gravedigger’s shovel out a grave for Ophelia and Hamlet and Horatio enter at a distance and watch the gravediggers work. One gravedigger, called in the text a “clown,” does not recognize Hamlet as the prince and gives an illustration of the young prince Hamlet’s life, telling him that the Hamlet that he has heard of had gone mad and been sent to England, and answers his question of “How came he mad?” with “Faith, e’en with losing his wits.” Through this exchange, Hamlet learns of his identity voiced in the words of the clown, who gives him an outward perspective on his own self. Later in the scene, when watching Laertes leap into Ophelia’s grave, Hamlet advances on him and declares his sorrow for Ophelia’s death, boldly stating, “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane.” This line shows that Hamlet has achieved a sense of his own identity within himself, counter to the cultural subjectivity he has endured over the course of the play, and he proclaims it. This is further reinforced in the last scene of the play, Act V, scene ii, when Hamlet speaks directly to Laertes’s accusations, “What I have done… I here proclaim was madness. / Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet. / If Hamlet himself be tane away, / And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes, / Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. / Who does it then? His madness… His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.” In this quote, Hamlet is actively separating his “madness,” or his outwardly perceived self, from the “centre which holds what is most intimately involved in someone’s conscious life,” or his inner identity, which he believes is Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet provides a social commentary on the concept of personal identity, and main character Hamlet is a character faced with the problem of the primacy of inwardness, affected by the need for outward confirmation of its content; or the concept of self at war with subjectivity. The predicament of identity uncovered thus far in Hamlet is shown by the dichotomy of inwardness versus outwarness. One the one hand, inwardness requires outward expression for verification, because without display, the existence of inward identity is uncertain. On the other hand, outward expression is an inconsistent definition of identity, because it is a subjective self, subservient to social categories and convention. Hamlet’s thoughts and actions voice the inner threat of the question of identity, and the definition of identity between the outer man, which is the man that is a cultural subject, and the inner man, which is the consciousness. Hamlet’s statements in the final act of the play convey that the character Hamlet stands philosophically with both Locke and Wolgast, stating that identity exists within. The question “Who’s there,” posed in the beginning of the play by one frightened guard to another, is indirectly answered by the pronouncements that the main character Hamlet gives at the end, when he tells his foe Laertes who he is; Hamlet, and who he is not; his madness. 

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